Whitecaps not coming to New West

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Mayor Wayne Wright blames time and an inability to not “get all the positives out to the city” for not being able to bring the Vancouver Whitecaps to town.

He made the comments in the aftermath of Monday’s decision by council to kibosh plans to convert Queen’s Park Stadium into a soccer-only facility to attract a development team for the Major League Soccer club.

“It’s no secret I was a big proponent,” said Wright. “It was a huge economic development for the city. We should have got all the positives out to the city … It was a progressive thing for the future.”

New Westminster and the Whitecaps signed a memorandum of understanding on July 7. But the Whitecaps needed a final deal by Sept. 15 so it could apply to play in the USL-Pro League starting in March 2015.

But on deadline day council got sticker shock.

A report to council pegged the total cost at $11.4 million. But the city has set aside just $3 million in its budgets for the area which would have meant borrowing nearly $8.4 million.

The report estimated the cost to fix the field and the concrete grandstand, and to expand seating capacity to a minimum of 3,500 was $7.07 million. Building a full-sized replacement baseball field elsewhere in the city was pegged at $1.14 million while a proposed artificial turf field next to the stadium had a $3.2 million price tag.

“You’ve got to look at the numbers,” said Wright. “I don’t think the gap was an $8 million gap.”

Wright said the tight timeframe to determine the costs and do community consultation were the project’s biggest obstacles.

“There’s always two sides to a story, and this is one of those things that’s got a lot of intangibles to it,” said Wright. “[It would have been] nice to partner up with somebody that is high calibre such as the Whitecaps.”

He said although the grandstand is iconic, it’s also falling apart. He doesn’t see the point in spending $1 million to rehabilitate a wooden grandstand, built in 1928, that’s only used once or twice a year and continues to degrade.

Wright said New Westminster business would have received a lot of economic benefit, while the community would have gained improved recreation facilities and a strong relationship with the Whitecaps.

Wright did not officially vote on the proposal but the rest of council unanimously turned it down.

“What it really came down to here is the financial numbers don’t work,” said Coun. Jonathan Coté, who will oppose Wright in the mayoral race in the November civic election.

Coté said the revenue the city would have received from the Whitecaps lease “would have come nowhere close to recouping the city’s capital costs.”

Coun. Bill Harper said going ahead was too risky.

“When we first took a look at it, it was very quite exciting in terms of getting a professional sports team to actually use a stadium that’s used once a year. Not only that, but professional sports teams like that would raise the profile the city,” said Harper. “It would make the city more attractive [to visitors], and for economic development. At that point we had no idea what the reaction was going to be in the community.

“We knew being in the summer time was a problem, and the timeline was a problem but in our view taking the opportunity and time to look at it was important. That’s what we did.”

Harper said the baseball community set the agenda by attending open houses and council meetings to voice their opposition.

But although the sport would have been turfed from the stadium, New Westminster Baseball president Ron Suffron was happy about the decision for financial reasons.

“The numbers just don’t work, that’s all there is to it. And the timeframe never worked,” said Suffron. “That whole process was crazy to spend that kind of money behind closed doors just didn’t make sense.”

Suffron said baseball needs to improve its promotion of games so the grandstand is used for more than just May Day.

Queen’s Park Residents Association president David Brett believes New Westminster has missed a golden opportunity to both save the stadium and to align the city with a marquee group like the Whitecaps.

He said the staff report’s one-page financial summary doesn’t fully analyze the proposal.

“It appears to only tally the capital costs, but it does not reference any revenue anticipated from the project, and it doesn’t seem to define the contribution from the Whitecaps. It’s not spelled out what the sports franchise was going to contribute,” said Brett. “I don’t think the way council has disclosed this to the public is quite right.”

Signs opposing and supporting the Whitecaps have popped up on lawns all over New Westminster. Petitions and comments from both sides have dominated social media talk in the city.

“The opponents have been very loud and somewhat rude, and I think a minority have influenced the decision,” said Brett. “You can disagree without being disagreeable, and I think this has not been a very fair process from the opponents’ side. A lot of misinformation has been disseminated.”

The Whitecaps have resumed discussions with other Lower Mainland municipalities to find a place for its young prospects to play in 2015.

“[W]e are disappointed by city council’s decision not to proceed with this proposal,” said president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis in a joint statement. “We truly appreciate the support we received from members of the New Westminster community and are thankful to those residents and businesses – as well as our supporters – for all of their efforts.”

The team will be owned and operated by the Whitecaps, developer Ian Gillespie and development consultant Gary Pooni, a New Westminster native.

© New Westminster News Leader

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